Archive for December, 2008

End of the year roundup

December 27, 2008

from deep in the thickness of the holidays, a time when we celebrate traditions that seem to be really old but really aren’t, some reflections on the current state of preservation in Chicago and elsewhere….

Al Capone’s house – there was a lengthy article on the Al Capone house, a modest c. 1915 red brick flat building in Park Manor on the South Side. When this was proposed for the National Register back in 1989, I remember all hell broke loose thanks to a collection of Italian-American organizations objecting to giving the mobster any honor. Of course, landmark designation is not “honoring,” otherwise we wouldn’t landmark things like the Vesey Street staircase or Manzanar, but the media sweatfest was enough to torpedo the designation. Now, the owner of the house since 1963 is selling it, so the Capone history has come back in the form of a big article in the paper and a $50,000 boost on the sales price. People are always in favor of preservation when it pays off – the trick is seeing the payoff when it is still in the distance.

Barack Obama got elected, so we may get the 2016 Olympics, which means the Olmsted landscape in Washington Park will be affected. Keep an eye on this one.

Institutions – especially schools, hospitals and churches – are sometimes more likely to cause demolition of valuable historic resources than private developers. A classic example is the move of Children’s Memorial Hospital from Lincoln Park to Streeterville. The move not only threatens the buildings they are leaving – serviceable and urbane but not spectacular – but also the neighborhood they are moving to. Turns out Ronald McDonald House has to move with them, putting a landmark up for sale in Lincoln Park and potentially leading to the demolition of two buildings on the near north side. First, they are planning on building a new Ronald McDonald House by demolishing a nice 1887 warehouse – again serviceable and urbane but not spectacular. (See September 4 2008 blog) Second, they are NOT re-using Prentice Women’s Hospital, one of Bertrand Goldberg’s great buildings. This would have been a natural. I guess that would require a contemporary high-definition widescreen preservation vision. Too much to ask?
Prentice is on the current Chicagoland Watch List of Landmarks Illinois (link on the right). In fact, if you look at the dozen buildings on the list, at least half are threatened by universities and/or hospitals.
Oh, and let’s not forget religious institutions, what with the Archdiocese trying again to demolish Henry Schlacks’ St. Boniface Church at Noble and Chestnut. I wouldn’t be surprised if that move torches real estate values for four blocks in every direction.
On the plus side, we have seen the rehab of the Wabash Avenue buildings in the former Carson Pirie Scott complex. All of the attention is on the rediscovered Louis Sullivan facades on the Haskell and Barker Buildings but I have also been entranced by the restored roofline of the Atwater Building.
Now, a brief celebration of the supercool landmarks I saw in 2008, in chronological order:
that’s a good year. At least three World Heritage sites visited, plus I don’t know how many National Historic Landmarks…


roast this chestnut

December 21, 2008

It is a reflective time of year and I was reflecting on the oldest, most thoroughly roasted chestnut of all. One of the most frequent anti-preservation arguments, it goes something like this.

“If we had preservation laws back then, X would never have been able to build Y.”

(Where X = Daniel Burnham or Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe or any other resplendent architectural genius; and Y = Reliance Building or Guggenheim Museum or Crown Hall or any other munificent architectural landmark.)

This is an intriguing position, a sort of “dropped from heaven” philosophical argument that works in the brain even though it doesn’t in the world, which is overdetermined, messy and complex now matter how hard you wish.

We have examples that seem to support this position. Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall was built on the site of the Mecca Flats, the architectural and historic center of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, and there was even an effort to save it.
Also in Chicago, we have the Field Building, built in 1934 on the site of the first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building. In fact, they only proved the Home Insurance was the first skyscraper by dismantling it.

But there are several problems with the argument. The most important is the “gotcha” implied: if we had preservation laws, we never would have built the landmarks we now try to preserve – and isn’t that ironic.

No. First, it is wrong on the face of it – preservation laws have been around for at least two thousand years. This is why the Pantheon is still there – an excellent example of multiple adaptive re-use projects over the years. Even in the absence of laws, people have saved buildings that were functionally pointless and worthless – like the Chicago Water Tower, which Chicago saved at least three times (1906, 1918, 1948) before there were any preservation laws.
Second, the assumption that preservation somehow inhibits new development is laughable. Did Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe need an infinite number of potential building sites in order to be creative?

Today, in 2008, if you landmarked every single building identified in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, and added those to every building already landmarked in the city, what percentage of the city would be inhibited from development? Of course, the real answer is 0, since a creative developer can work with existing buildings, but even if all developers were knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers (which they aren’t) you would have landmarked less than 3% of the city. Okay guys, you only have 97% of the city to work with: are you feeling inhibited?
Third, the argument implies that the past was bold and the present is timid. We whine and save our precious relics while our noble ancestors snorted, thumped their chests, strapped on, rode roughshod and made history.

I said to Bruce Sheridan the other night there are two mistakes you can make when judging people in the past. You can make the mistake of assuming that they were smarter than us and you can make the mistake of thinking they were stupider than us. The same holds for braver, stronger, etc. We tend to idealize or marginalize the past and both attitudes are WRONG.

High Modernist architects like Le Corbusier added fuel to the anti-preservation fire by proposing to demolish central Paris and inventing urban renewal, which laid waste to vast swaths of historic buildings worldwide. Modernists, more than the architects before them, seemed to disdain past architecture, but that is deceiving, because they disdained the IMMEDIATE PAST while revering the DISTANT PAST.

Le Corbusier loved the Parthenon and waxed rhapsodic about “When the Cathedrals were white.” The Paris he sought to demolish was only 50 years old, the High Victorian Second Empire of Hausmann. Gropius launched the Bauhaus with the visual and narrative image of a Gothic cathedral. Wright had great disdain for the Queen Anne architecture around him in Oak Park but he loved the vernacular barns and farmhouses of the Midwest. Every modernist wanted to save something: the only difference was in what they valued.
This brings us to the fourth and least tested aspect of this misguided aphorism. If places that preserve stifle creativity and new landmarks, then where are the landmarks of tomorrow? Well, they must be in Houston and Atlanta and Orlando or other places that don’t landmark much. They can’t be in Manhattan, which has preserved so many buildings and districts, or Chicago.

And the idea that anything new or creative could be in Paris or London is completely out of the question, right?
WRONG. Time to take this hoary chestnut off the fire because there is nothing left but a charred husk.

Yuck at UIC

December 18, 2008

I admit it. Back in the day (early 1990s) the committee I staffed at Landmarks Illinois refused Walter Netsch’s request that we try to preserve his UIC campus design, replete with double-decked concrete walkways and a concrete forum/agora/ampitheaters in the center of the supposed commuter campus. The center was replaced with typical 90s Vanilla Town Center but the basic brutalist buildings remained. And I liked them and I went to school in them for much of the early 2000s and I liked them more as I spent time in and around them.
I even referenced the buildings in my speech there last May (see the blogroll from May) and they had a clear elegance in concert with their material, the lancet lattices of beveled brut framing windows in a delicious evocation of gothic aspiration that did not detract from the atomic optimism of the campus’ 1960s conception.
So I am teaching a class there this spring so I went back to campus for the first time in a couple of years and found this crap
How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways….
1. Goodbye Lincoln Cathedral, Hello bicycle shed. The original buildings had layers, rhythms of solid and void, a sense of depth. Now they look like toasters, and I don’t mean an elegant Sunbeam from the 1930s. Flat and formless.
2. Aluminum cladding. This stuff makes siding look good. It is what everyone uses nowadays for storefronts, even on nice projects, but the detailing is godawful – the cuts are rough, the joints are artlessly placed, and the whole thing depends on caulk. And how do they weather?
What will it look like after a whole year?
3. They boast about having more natural light – this is true. They also probably have more space, because the exterior column system so reminiscent of Corbu’s Do-mi-no is now on the inside, and the concrete lancets are gone, along with any sense of romance. And purpose. Design? gone. Nuance? gone. Meaning? gone. More natural light? Check.
4. The sign says “eco-friendly design.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but has ANYONE seen ANY building project in the last two years that DOESN’T claim to be an “eco-friendly design?” The only challenge is trying to figure out their reasoning behind making THE SAME CLAIM AS EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD. CF bulbs? Wait! It must be the natural light, because that is light from nature, which is pretty darn eco-friendly. Increased heat loads, but hey, they probably tinted the glass, solving the heck out of that problem, and they probably added a layer of glass, so it won’t cost more to heat the increased amount of interior space. As long as that caulk holds.
Okay, I looked it up, and they got a big grant to go geothermal, which is a good thing. I can say nothing negative about this except that I have seen other buildings go geothermal without going UGLY.
5. Walter Netsch died this year. This is a hell of a way to commemorate him, but then again we celebrated Louis Sullivan’s 150th by torching three of his buildings.
6. Contemporary architecture is designed from the inside out. The only difference between this approach and that of classical modernism, is that Frank Lloyd Wright and friends continued to design when they got outside. This may be a lovely learning environment inside with lots of light and perfect climate control. It certainly will encourage students to stay inside and learn more because once they get outside, they have to contend with a whole lot of ugly.
Bottom line? This is an aesthetic call. This renovation looks cheap and boxy and really, really makes the Netsch buildings look fantastic in comparison.

Bronzeville Summit II

December 12, 2008

I am spending the day at the Bronzeville/Black Metropolis Heritage Area Summit II, “Owning the Change” here at The Cell. This involves the various community planning initiatives and heritage tourism initiatives that have grown out of the Black Metropolis Historic DIstrict (National Register 1986, Chicago Landmark 1996) and the Black Metropolis Convention and Visitors Bureau. I moderated a panel on “Town and Gown” with old friend Leroy Kennedy from IIT, Laura Rounce from Illinois College of Optometry, and (also old friend) Susan Campbell from U of C. We talked about the evolving relationship between universities and their neighborhoods. Both U of C and IIT spent the 1950s treating their neighborhoods like a disposable resource “land bank” and demolishing buildings at will. Indeed, one of our great ironies is that the premier landmark of IIT – Crown Hall – sits on the site of the Mecca, one of the great buildings of Bronzeville.
We just had a breakout session on preservation, and our big recommendation was “more historic districts!” We discussed preservation tax incentives, the excellent Greystone Initiative that Neighborhood Housing Services developed for Lawndale, and how buildings can qualify for landmark status. I am always amazed at how little people know about the various levels of landmarks. As this blog always notes, the National Register of Historic Places adds NO REGULATION unless you ask for a tax incentive, and local Chicago Landmarks, which do add regulation but can help save a neighborhoods historic resources.
I was impressed with the desire on the part of the Bronzeville community to landmark more of the neighborhood. It made me think about the ignorance of the North Shore in contrast. Here, where there are memories of legal and social segregation, of redlining and city demolition, of exploitation and urban renewal – the preservation impulse is strong. The Bronzeville community sees preservation as a way to take back control of the community. It has always been so and I think in the future this place will be desirable and valuable. I can’t say the same for those places that shun preservation.

Pay to Preserve?

December 11, 2008

Well, Blagojevich is going down. I actually downloaded and read the indictment yesterday and it was gripping stuff, trying to take apart a newspaper and sell a Senate seat. I wonder if the Tribune might have avoided bankruptcy if Blago hadn’t disrupted the Wrigley sale – but heck, at least he is selling a lot of newspapers this week. Amazing stuff – right out of George Washington Plunkett. He seen his opportunities and he took ‘em and he kept takin’ ‘em even when they were breathing down his neck.

So, now the historic site closings make a little more sense – maybe someone didn’t ante up. This makes sites like Frank Lloyd Wright’s STUNNING Dana-Thomas House in Springfield look better – being frozen out by a toxic Governor is a badge of honor, or at least honesty. In several previous blogs I was trying to figure out the economic sense of closing these sites, because it didn’t make economic sense. But I was looking at it from the point of view of a public balance sheet of income and expenses, not the point of view of Blagojevich’s back pocket. Now it makes sense.

Obama Economic stimulus: getting it right

December 7, 2008

Yesterday President-elect Barack Obama announced a massive jobs stimulus package for the economy, which many have compared to Dwight Eisenhower’s federal highway building program of a half-century ago. While the scale of the comparison may be apt, it is essential that Obama’s team makes this a 21st century stimulus and not a repeat of the 1950s.
Investment in roads and infrastructure seems like a good thing, but there are limitations. Highway building only produces half the economic spinoff of building rehabilitation – preservation – for example. The reasons why are easy to see: it is a machine-and-material based job that kicks a lot of cash to concrete and surfacers. The ratio between labor and materials/machines is not nearly as favorable as building rehabilitation.
I would hope that some of the stimulus could be aimed at improving the rail corridors that have become so busy the last five years or so – the proposed expansion of CN along the Fox River valley is causing a lot of outrage, much of which could be addressed by that most expensive of infrastructure improvements: elimination of grade crossings.
Obama wants a lot of the jobs to be in environmental cleanup and energy efficiency, which is a good thing to want. Let’s make sure the produce-and-waste manufacturers don’t take charge and pervert the thing like they did with “green”. Fix things, upgrade things, improve things. Once you start replacing things and throwing out the old ones, you are repeating the mistakes of the old economy.
Obama also talked about upgrading federal buildings and schools with new heating systems and CF light bulbs. Again, a good idea, but let’s not make the obvious mistakes most homeowners have made: change all your lightbulbs and then buy a flat-screen TV that uses 5-6 times the electricity of your old one. No net gain in many situations.
Plus, we know from the General Services Administration that pre-1920 government buildings are ALREADY more energy-efficient than those built from 1930 to 2000. Historic buildings typically used 27% less energy than “modern” ones (pre-2000). The economics of the 1950s – what Eisenhower famously termed “the military-industrial complex” – favored waste. This was the period of single-glazing and energy inefficiency and it coincided with one of the rare times in history that energy was cheap: 1945-1973.
every-19thA few stats from the National Trust for Historic Preservation:
– Building a 50,000 square foot building from scratch uses the same energy needed to drive a car 20,000 miles a year for 730 years.
– The Brookings Institution projects we will demolish and rebuild 82 billion square feet of buildings by 2030. If we saved just 10% of those buildings, we could power the state of New York for over a year. If we demolish them, we will landfill the equivalent of 2600 NFL stadiums.
– It will take up to 65 years for a new energy-efficient building to offset the demolition of an existing building.
The 21st century is the opposite of waste, so let’s hope Obama’s team incorporates preservation – the re-use of the good things we have and the employment of people to fix things that last, not things we throw away.

over the hill and out of cash

December 4, 2008

I am over the hill by any reckoning, but it seems I am in concert with the country. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the United States is already one of the few countries where younger workers aged 25 to 34 are less educated than older workers. This was in a study showing how higher education costs have been skyrocketing – a lot more than even health care costs, which I figure comes out to about absurd insanity times two.

This is doubly unfortunate because I work in one of very few industries besides entertainment that has a positive trade balance for the U.S. Thomas Friedman’s famous flat world book noted that we have more than half of the institutions of higher education and we get lots of foreign students – who generally pay more tuition. This works out for them because the value of a U.S. degree back home is not only marketable but readily monetized – I heard that Koreans can expect 10% higher salary with an American degree.

The National Center report was focused on how unaffordable colleges and universities are becoming for Americans – we could conceivably still provide a positive trade balance simply by educating others – but I suspect that a country where the young are less able and acute will not maintain its high-end brand for long. I also suspect that our two leading exports are inextricable linked: the branding of American education derives in significant part from the entertainment industry – especially Hollywood – which projects, promotes and packages our lifestyle for world consumption. The even more craven portrayal of the recording industry – think bling – reinforces an image of wealth that is part and parcel of the American experience. And while the hip-hop world hardly celebrates education, where but an American university can an aspiring Ghanian, Korean or Kuwaiti find the lifestyle promoted in all the music and movies? We can only pray that our brand remains strong, otherwise a lot of schools are going to go under.

Or, they will do what other industries did – move abroad for cheaper labor. University professors are not generally paid as well as auto workers, but they are paid less in Asia and Africa, so I wouldn’t be shocked if certain schools expand little exchange programs and study centers into fully functioning educational maquilladoras. Students will save on travel, universities will save on staff costs.

Our school is promising a detailed look at the state of American education and there is great concern here about the corporatization of academia. The bottom line remains the bottom line – where does the money come from? Schools rely on poorly-paid part-time faculty and yet tuition rises faster than health care costs – we don’t even have snake oils like Viagra and Prozac to blame. We don’t have private jets either, and our Boards are unpaid. So where is the money? My guess is that we grew based on government grants and loans that are now shrinking – just as home values grew on low interest rates. And unfortunately, the two are linked: home mortgages likely financed a lot of education.

As a historian, I see the huge influx of government capital that created this industry in the 1940s and 1950s (and the spectre of Vietnam that fed it into the 1970s) as an historical event that is not likely to repeat. I don’t expect the universities to join the banks, brokerages and automakers in the Washington soup line with their begging bowls. But things can’t remain as they are. And they won’t. The Moving Finger writes…

Q & A on architectural ornament

December 2, 2008


I recently got a tour of 4 S. Gifford in Elgin. It is a fascinating building. It was originally either two or four apartments – I can’t tell for sure. It does have two nice parlors with fireplace mantels. In one of them they refinished the oak floors One bathroom is original but little else of the original fabric is left inside. Above the entrance door is a frieze of alternating bull skulls and swags. I’m sure there is some incredible symbolism attached to it. I wondered if you might have knowledge of symbolism in architecture? Would you have a reference book on it or perhaps you could direct me to one? I would love to learn more and hear your opinion.
In the transom above the door is a frieze of winged lions. Any idea what they signify? I’ve heard of griffins — winged lions with an eagle’s head. I wonder what it would signify on a building??

Dan Miller, Elgin

I don’t have a short answer for the stags and swags but they are common in post-1890 Beaux-Arts buildings, which means many architect-designed buildings of 1890-1930. At base the symbolism is simply bountifulness and plenty – they symbolize having plenty to eat. The griffins are very common on English Renaissance buildings, and hence on Georgian and Colonial.

I just checked Meyer’s Handbook of Ornament which says “the Griffin is associated in Antiquity with fire; hence his frequent appearance with candleabra on friezes, &c. In Heraldry the Griffin is the symbol of wisdom and watchfulness.” Meyer include chimera (a more lionesque head-like griffin) with the griffin category.

Of the other, Meyer says: “Festoons of fruits hanging in deep curves between rosettes, candleabra, skulls of animals, &c., are common in the Roman style. The origin of this…Festoons of real fruit were hung as a decoration on the friezes of temples, alternating with the real Skulls of slaughtered sacrifical animals…” He explains it moved from sacred to secular architecture in the Renaissance “and has remained in use to the present time.” which is 1894. That date is pretty close to this building.

hope that helps